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  • Stolen Elections:The Case of the Serbian October
  • Mark R. Thompson (bio) and Philipp Kuntz (bio)

The overthrow of Slobodan Milošević in Serbia's so-called October Revolution four years ago was briefly celebrated by the international press, and it also received extensive attention from scholars. Such accounts focused on why and how the opposition won the September 2000 presidential ballot as well as on the organizing of the ensuing uprising. But the link between the regime's disregard for the election results and the subsequent mass mobilization has not been adequately explained.1 Of course, most scholars recognize that Milošević's electoral defeat and his attempts to manipulate the results contributed mightily to his fall. Yet it has not made clear exactly why this stolen election had such a revolutionary outcome.

Elections are considered stolen when a regime hinders an opposition victory through blatant manipulation of the vote count or through the annulment of the electoral results. In Serbia, it was only after such stolen elections had fundamentally transformed the political setting that mass protest became successful; prior to the dramatic changes brought about by the 2000 polls, attempts to organize Milošević's overthrow had failed repeatedly. The closest the opposition had previously come to toppling the regime was during the startling antiregime protests that followed the government's annulment of the November 1996 municipal-election results.

The importance of developing a theory around stolen elections goes beyond the Serbian case. Scholarly research on electoral or competitive [End Page 159] authoritarianism—sometimes termed pseudodemocratic rule—attempts to capture the absurdity of nondemocratic regimes' holding of competitive elections. In the post-Cold War setting, some form of democratic legitimacy has become essential to the survival of many authoritarian regimes. In such countries, elections are often just competitive enough to allow the opposition some room to maneuver, which strengthens domestic support for the regime as well as its international standing.

The structural ambiguity of electoral authoritarianism creates a degree of uncertainty for power holders.2 It is difficult to strike a balance between the regime's substantive authoritarian characteristics and its procedural democratic ones: When the regime acts openly authoritarian it risks appearing dictatorial, but it is endangered if democratic procedures are taken too seriously. For the regime, stolen elections combine these "evils": Not only does the competitive nature of elections enable the opposition to emerge as the true winner, but by manipulating or simply ignoring the results, the regime cannot avoid revealing its true, dictatorial colors.

The academic literature on electoral authoritarianism documents how regimes, in order to retain power, steal elections that they have lost, but the consequences of such maneuvers have not been systematically explored. Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way point generally to the dangers faced by regimes that too blatantly violate the electoral process, but the authors do not discuss what happens when a regime suffers a clear defeat and then ignores the results.3 In his analysis of the "nested game of democratization by elections," Andreas Schedler regards the possibility that the "game" may end after a stolen election because the regime then either surrenders power or cracks down on the opposition.4 But he does not consider whether it might be possible for the regime to disregard the election results and still lose power. Other theorists who have considered this option have concluded that it is likely to result in a bloody and prolonged civil war.5

Elections and Revolutions

In countries ruled by autocratic regimes, stolen elections often create conditions favorable for the outbreak of democratic revolutions. Elections cannot be stolen unless they are "stunning"—that is, elections in which the regime is surprised by the defeat it suffers at the hands of opposition candidates.6 In Nicaragua's 1990 elections, the Sandinistas, stunned by their loss, briefly considered manipulating or annulling the results before finally acknowledging defeat. Similarly, Iranian conservatives gave in to the equally surprising victory of reformist candidate Mohammad Khatami in the 1997 presidential polls (although they continued to exercise power by holding on to reserve domains). And in 2000, Zimbabwe experienced a political earthquake [End Page 160] when President Robert Mugabe lost a constitutional referendum that...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 159-172
Launched on MUSE
2004-10-13
Open Access
No
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